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[OPINION] True Voluntarism

I recently read Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw ‘s column on The New York Times. In college, his textbooks helped me understand economics much better. His well-written textbooks are read by many students in Korea.

His recent column was titled “When the Scientist Is Also a Philosopher.” I read it because I liked the title. Among the points he makes: Economists are, by design, philosophers in that their recommendations are essentially based on a belief/value system. I agree completely. Another one of his points: “…when people have voluntarily agreed upon an economic arrangement to their mutual benefit, that arrangement should be respected.” He further opines on the minimum wage and the (American) Affordable Care Act:

“As I see it, the minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act are cases in point. Noble as they are in aspiration, they fail the do-no-harm test. An increase in the minimum wage would disrupt some deals that workers and employers have made voluntarily. The Affordable Care Act has disrupted many insurance arrangements that were acceptable to both the insurance company and the insured; these policies were canceled because they deviated from lawmakers’ notion of the ideal.”

I do not know much about what’s going on in America. Nor am I involved. But, I would like to offer maybe a (possible) retort to this type of logic. I question the logic.

I question: “What exactly is voluntary?” Consider these two stories:

1) A few years ago, there was much debate about the decision in France to ban the burqa in public places. One could argue that such women wore the burqa freely/voluntarily. On the other hand, some supported the ban saying: “…the veil represents a wider culture; a tribal, parochial, patriarchal culture that winds up actually taking more choices away…” (Irshad Manji).

2) In Korea, there has been much frustration/anger among some job seekers (interviewees) that (job) interviewers are often rude and ask inappropriate questions that may be too personal. For instance, “Why aren’t you married??” “Why don’t you have kids yet??” But, the interviewees almost always end up answering such questions. They are, in fact, giving up such information freely and voluntarily. So, are such questions automatically desirable/acceptable?

In society, some groups wield enormous influence. Other groups don’t. Some groups are very desperate.

I do admit there is a fine line between paternalism and “setting things right.”

Still, “Well, it was voluntary. So, that’s the end of that…”

What are your thoughts?

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6 Responses to “[OPINION] True Voluntarism”

  1. authorbengarrido

    I think the answer to Mr. Mankiw’s notion to freedom is very simple – like organisms, societies compete. That which better enables a society to compete will be likely to be selected for. That which harms a society’s competitiveness will tend to be selected against. Freedom is, while often a boon to competitiveness, at its base a distraction from this deeper issue of survival.

    To put it even more simply, Mr. Mankiw is seemingly so caught up in his freedom ideals that he forgot to ask if those freedoms do any good.

    • Kang Ju-won (강주원)

      Yeah, you are right. I personally feel freedom and competition are right (in the main), but they need to be tweaked from time to time. Of course, “when” is open to debate.

  2. Jen

    I used to agree with the idea expressed in Mr. Mankiw’s column. But the older I get, the more I realize that it’s overly simplistic and a legal fiction to simply say that workers and employers, for example, enter into their arrangements voluntary. The power dynamics are too skewed. Yes, nobody forces someone to work anywhere. But the reality is that most employees need jobs to pay rent and buy food and cannot afford to wait for an employer that will agree to terms more favorable to the employees. It’s not like two large, profitable corporations deciding to do a business deal together. We have to recognize the reality when one party has much more bargaining power than the other. It’s not unfair for the government to make the playing field slightly more even, to give those with little to no power slightly more power, so that they are not so completely at the mercy of the much more powerful.


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